Cruise risk a mix of health and happiness

Ashlea Witoslawski
The Ruby Princess has been linked to more than 20 coronavirus deaths after it arrived on March 19

Back in the days before the true threat of COVID-19 was known, NSW public health officials were concerned with confirming clear test results but also about keeping people waiting on board cruise ships.

The Ruby Princess has been linked to more than 20 coronavirus deaths across Australia after it arrived in Sydney on March 19.

An inquiry examining the processes that allowed 2700 passengers to disembark that day is also looking at its previous voyage.

Public health unit deputy director Dr Vicky Sheppeard was part of the assessment team which boarded the ship on a previous docking on March 8, due to concerns about a high rate of acute respiratory illness onboard as well as two passengers who had been to Singapore.

On Wednesday she answered questions about the processes that gave a green light to passengers being allowed to disembark before all COVID-19 test results had been returned.

"You said you thought that was a proportionate response given it was low risk or unlikely COVID was on the ship?" counsel assisting the special commission of inquiry Richard Beasley SC asked.

Dr Sheppeard said it seemed disproportionate to keep people on the ship pending test results given the low risk and that "societal expectations" would have played a part in the decision.

"This was prior to a lot of very, significant restrictions," she said.

"In the training I've had in public health, if we're restricting or imposing on a population it needs to be proportionate to the risk."

Mr Beasley continued: "It is undoubtedly an inconvenience to people to be told they have to stay on board a ship, how does that get balanced against the problem that would have occurred if the results are positive?"

Dr Sheppeard answered: "That's a part of risk assessment so you have to understand what the range of outcomes are and what the risks are leading to those outcomes and make a decision on the most reasonable way to proceed."

The inquiry will continue on Thursday.